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Death Watch by Ari Berk

Silas’s father should have been home hours ago. His mom, Delores, isn’t making things better. She’s convinced Amos Umber is dead, and Silas just reminds her of the life she never wanted. After moving in with Silas’s uncle (whom everyone calls Uncle), Silas and his mom, are at each other’s throats.

Silas sets off on his own after Uncle reveals a collection of personal death portraits. There’s strange sounds coming from a locked room, and while Silas wants to unravel the mystery, he first must escape Uncle’s reign. Silas takes up residence in his father’s old house. A neighbor who worked with his dad tells Silas it is time for him to continue the inherited Umber legacy of Undertaker. But these Undertakers help souls move on. Silas reluctantly uses a special Death Watch to contact and counsel spirits still bound to this earth.

The story opens from Amos Umber’s perspective and reveals what being an Undertaker meant for him and how he feels about Silas. It also sets up his disappearance by showing his angst at visiting a particular house.

Character continuity is strong and accurate. Silas is expectantly awaiting his father’s return. He is constantly struggling with thoughts of his father and Uncle, while dealing with grief and desperate to find his own way. At the same time, he longs for his past and ponders his father’s fate. His growth is believable, and it is good to see him finally let go and focus on others.

Dolores is a bitter woman who always disapproved of Amos’s job. We never learn why she disliked Amos’s role as Undertaker; however she has a character arc resulting in realistic growth by book’s end. My only complaint is her revelation comes off-screen, so-to-speak.

Most of the secondary characters stick to their roles and are generally easily discernable. Even though the central conflict revolves around Uncle and Silas’s search for his father, the author chooses what I find to be a strange detour with Bea, a quiet girl who also knows Amos. Bea feels like an unnecessary distraction in the form of a mysterious love interest when I don’t think Silas would be thinking of girls at a time like this. Even so, the reader still cares about Silas’s well-being, and the ongoing question mark hanging above Amos Umber’s fate keeps the pages turning.

It feels like it takes too long for Silas to accept his responsibilities as Undertaker, and he is too quick to accept strangers who claim to have known his father. The love interest storyline seems unfulfilling, though perhaps Berk will continue the storyline in the second book of the trilogy.

While Silas’s final confrontation with Uncle is rewarding, I don’t think it warrants the length and extreme detail preceding the final act. The showdown with Uncle is very rewarding, we feel his frustration with losing control and his reaction to Silas—along with his plans for his nephew—is warranted, if alarming.

One of the most impressive aspects of this novel is the setting description. This old town seems as dead as those who tend to travel its roads. There is no corner of Lichport that you wish Silas had left unexplored. Such locations include taverns where the dead drink while hiding from their wives, a place where herons mourn lost children, murky marshes, and a dark part of town filled with lost souls.

While there are other books featuring those tasked with helping spirits move to the other side, Ari Berk manages to craft a unique tone which focuses more on the protagonist’s tumultuous life than the job he’s overtaking. The result is the belief that real people occupy these pages.

I recommend Death Watch to readers who long for a sad, mysterious world in which to get lost. Silas finally finds himself, and when he does, you feel his triumph.

-Travis

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